Saturday, February 25, 2006

Quining Gettier Cases

What is the epistemological relevance of Gettier counterexamples to the definition of “knowledge” as justified true belief (JTB)? Any purported instance of knowledge is either a Gettier case or not. If not, and it is not an instance of JTB, it is no counterexample. If it is not and is also a case of JTB, the belief is both justified and true. And if it is a Gettier case, then the belief is, of necessity, both justified and true. In no Gettier case can a belief be unjustified or untrue. To take a standard example, suppose I’m driving by a field and I see, from a great distance, some piles of shaven wool which I take to be sheep. Let’s also suppose that there are sheep in the field, though I never see them. In this instance some of my beliefs—such as the belief that those wooly things over there are sheep—are false, and I think this is what, unconsciously, makes it seem plausible that more than JTB is required for knowledge, for if we try and act on these belief or make inferences based on them we are liable to go wrong. But since these beliefs are false, they are not JTBs, and hence the scenario is no counterexample to the thesis that knowledge is JTB.[1] Yet my general belief to the effect that there are sheep in the field is both justified and true. I might go wrong if I try and make inferences based on the first, particular belief, yet that is false, and so not a JTB. As long as I confine my inferences[2] to the second, general belief, I will not go wrong, for it entails nothing about which things are sheep, where exactly the sheep are, how many there are, etc. It requires only that there are sheep in the field, and as that is true, it cannot entail any false proposition. For those, such as myself, who view epistemic practices as our means of ensuring (or trying to ensure) that our beliefs are true, Gettier cases should pose no problem, for in no such case can a belief be false, or entail false propositions. So my question is, if knowledge is more than JTB, why should we care whether we have it?

[1] My general belief that there are sheep in the field is true. We can question whether it is justified: The only evidence I had concerning the existence of sheep in the field was also evidence that those wooly things over there are sheep. Sheep really do exist in the field, yet nothing justifies me in believing those particular animals are in the field. In this case we might say we have evidence for the truth of a general belief without having evidence for its truthmakers.

[2] Of course I don’t mean to imply that in this scenario I realize that the first belief is false, as that would ascribe inconsistent beliefs to the hypothetical me. I mean only that inferences based on the second belief result in knowledge, while inferences based on the first do not.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Historical question: Was John Locke an Empiricist?

Was John Locke an Empiricist?

In order to decide whether a given philosopher is an empiricist, one must first decide what sense of “empiricist” one is using. Locke certainly did believe that all our ideas arise out of experience, but, as Kant pointed out, whether our beliefs are justified by experience is an entirely different issue. Locke did not hold, as did Mill, that even logical and mathematical principles are justified by induction. He discusses tautologies, which he calls “trifling” or “identical” propositions, and asserts that they are known to be certain, but waffles between holding that they are justified because of intuition and holding that they are justified because they can only serve to explicate the meaning of a term. But what concerns me here is what I shall call metaphysical empiricism, which consists in the acceptance of Humean atomism. The doctrine of Humean atomism can be summed up thus: “Any [fact] can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.”[1] Two passages make it clear that Locke did not believe this. First, he says, “[…] I fear the weakness of human understanding is scarce able to substitute another, which will afford us a fuller and clearer discovery of the necessary connexion and co-existence which are to be observed united in several sorts of [bodies].”[2] [My emphasis] And later he states more decisively, “I doubt not but if we could discover the figure, size, texture, and motion of the minute constituent parts of any two bodies, we should know without trial several of their operations one upon another, as we do now the properties of a square or a triangle.”[3] [My emphasis] Since such knowledge is by no means a part of the explication of terms, or an assertion of identity, it commits Locke to hold, together with Spinoza and the Absolute Idealists, that the world is "shot through" with (synthetically) necessary connections, to borrow a phrase from Blanshard. This is not merely the proposition that necessary connections obtain somewhere in the world, for even an occasionalist believes there is a necessary connection between God’s willing of an event and that event’s occurrence. But the occasionalist hypothesis could not be true if we suppose, as Locke does, that the effect of a physical cause could be deduced (i.e., “known without trial”) from a perfect knowledge of its cause. If effects can be deduced from their causes, then in every genuine instance of causation we have a necessary connection. And if every event has a cause, as Locke says they do,[4] then every event that occurs is necessitated by at least one other event. In respect of the metaphysics of causation, Locke is as much a rationalist as Spinoza himself. So is John Locke an empiricist? I think the only way we could answer that question is by having a much more sophisticated taxonomy of opposing positions than we now possess. Locke has an interesting mixture of views: He is apparently a psychological empiricist (that is, an anti-nativist), has ambiguous views on our justification for believing in necessary propositions, and apparently holds a strong rationalist thesis that natural laws hold through what we would now call a sort of metaphysical necessity, and that this necessity is nearly universal in scope given that evey event must have a cause. When we consider that 'rationalist' and 'empiricist' views can vary across many dimensions, and even intersect each other on some points, perhaps the only thing we can conclude is that the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy is a bad distinction, a crude oversimplification of an entire spectrum views that sometimes oppose and sometimes overlap.

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C.K. Ogden translation

[2] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 16
[3] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 25
[4] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. X, Sect. 3 “In the next place, man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.”

Friday, February 03, 2006

Does Wittgenstein's philosophy have metaphysical assumptions?

I think it does. When arguing for a form of "cluster descriptivism" in the Investigations (sect. 40), Wittgenstein implicitly assumes an A-theoretic or presentist view of time. An eternalist need not hold, if they hold that the meaning of “N.N.” is N.N. himself, that the meaning “dies”, in the sense of going out of existence, when Mr. N.N. dies. For according to the eternalist it is never false that N.N. exists, only that he exists now. So the term “N.N.” will refer to something past (relative to our current temporal stage), much as the phrase “the battle of Waterloo” does. So someone who believes proper names directly refer can remain consistent if they also embrace eternalism.

Wittgenstein's criterion of understanding as a person going on in a certain way presupposes some notion of transtemporal identity. It will not do for Wittgenstein to say, for example, that Bill’s understanding of an expression e depends on the subsequent use that Sally makes of the expression e. We can usually tell people apart, but certain neurophysiological conditions, e.g., split brain cases, throw our ordinary concept of personal identity into question. And even aside from neuropsychology, difficulties concerning persistence, such as the (in)famous Ship of Theseus, make the case for perdurantism over endurantism. Given the truth of perdurantism, as well as the mereological complexity (non-atomicity) of persons, it is to some extent arbitrary (or at least vague) which momentary entities are con-perdurants with which. Wittgenstein also cannot account for a person’s understanding or their “use” of a term in an antirealist or conceptualist manner by invoking our understanding or use of such terms as “identity”, “person”, or “same”, on pain of circularity. So a Wittgensteinian must give us some non-circular account of the perdurance of persons before they can explain a certain person’s understanding of an expression by how they, and not someone else, go on to use it. And if the notion of numerical identity is senseless, as Wittgenstein seems to suppose, then Wittgenstein’s account of understanding is senseless if he in any way relies on it for his account of understanding, as it would if temporal identity is ordinary logical identity. His account seems be in hot water irrespective of whether transtemporal identity is numerical identity or not. It's stuck between the rock of vicious circularity and the hard place of self-contradiction.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sense Data and the Determinacy of perception

Sometimes it is suggested that there cannot be such things as sense data, because nothing can have the properties our perceptual contents allegedly do have. In particular, it is sometimes suggested that the contents of our perceptions are vague or indeterminate in a way nothing could actually be. If you find this line of thought compelling, consider the following two step argument:

1. Nothing is indeterminate.
2. Our perceptual states are not indeterminate.

or this one:

1. Our perceptual states are indeterminate.
2. Something is indeterminate.

These arguments seem obviously valid, so if it is the case that nothing is indeterminate, then neither are our perceptual states. Conversely, if our perceptual states are indeterminate, then something in the world is indeterminate. Perhaps it will be said that this confuses the features of a representation with its content. The representational state is not itself indeterminate; it is rather that it is not determinate what these states, themselves determinate, represent. But if representation is supposed to be some sort of relation between a thing and its content, then this relation can no more be indeterminate than its relata. If there is no such thing as the representation relation, however, then nothing can be true of it, not even that 'it' is indeterminate. And this can't simply be a way of speaking about the relata or their monadic properties, for according to the advocate of determinacy neither these nor any sum of them can be indeterminate, and it cannot be true that it is indeterminate whether p if there is no relevant indeterminate state of affairs to make it true (at least for those who accept a kind of "truthmaker principle", as I do). If all the relevant things and their properties are determinate (including the propositions!), how can it be indeterminate whether some proposition is true of them? Some may say, as Lewis did, that indeterminacy or vagueness is simply semantic indecision on our part; there are our representations, their candidate represntata, and our simple failure to make up our mind about exactly which entities are the representata of a given representation. But the relevant entities, along with our decisions, are surely determinate. Take the term "old person". A Lewisian will say that we have not made a decision about precisely which people to cover by this term. But the question here is whether the term "old person" has an extension or not. If it does, then it must be indeterminate precisely which persons are in the extension of the term, because we have made no decision regarding the borderline cases; but if so, then according to this theory the borderline cases will neither determinately have the property of being in the extension of the term nor determinately lack it. (How does this differ from saying that a given object neither determinately has nor determinately lacks the property of being red? It seems there is no such thing as a purely semantic account of vagueness, for any such account will involve ontic vagueness in the semantic relation itself). An advocate of determinacy cannot admit this, so they will, if they are consistent, say that the term "old person", as we use it, has no extension. But those who advocate the indeterminacy of perception cannot take this stance; if, for example, they want to account for the phenomenon of our seeing the red and green segments of a bar without seeing where they meet, when the border falls on our blind-spot,[1] they cannot locate this indeterminacy in the perception itself. By hypothesis it can no more be indeterminate than the term "old person", nor can they locate it, by the above argument, in the relation of our perceptual state to its contents. And it cannot be that they have no contents, for in that case we would not have perceptual states. Epistemicism will not work here, for if the contents of perception are determinate then our perceptual states should be as well (Though of course an epistemicist could escape this by adhering to first-person skepticism: there really is a border in our perception of the red and green segments, we just can't detect it. Of course, if this response is true, everything involved in perception is determinate, and the epistemicist cannot use the argument from indeterminacy against sense data). If a perceptual state is indeterminate, and it is identical to a brain state, then by an admittedly bizarre application of Leibniz's Law that brain state must be indeterminate. The same is true of causal roles, functional roles, and adverbial states.

Sense data, therefore, are on no more a shaky ground than any other entities invoked to account for perception: If perception is indeterminate, then something in the world, whether it be a sense datum, brain state, adverbial state, causal role, functional role, or representation relation, is indeterminate. If nothing in the world is indeterminate, then perception cannot be either, including the entities involved in it. There are good arguments against sense data, but this is not one of them, for what is a problem for all theories can't be blamed on any one in particular.

[1] Pointed out by V.S. Ramachandran in "Filling in Gaps in Perception: Part I". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2:199-205 (1992)

My first post on my first blog...

I'm an undergraduate student who specializes in philosophy (they don't have it as a major at the community college I go to now). This is my place to work out my ideas, comment on the ideas of others, and get feedback from the budding community of philosophiles on the 'net. Who knows-- someday I might even be able to assemble my thoughts into a coherent paper. :-)

So welcome all*, and let the pontificating begin!

*Warning: Universal quantifiers are subject to restricted modification pending certain pragmatically implied assumptions regarding the non-trollhood of the participants.

English translation: Be civil.